By Arthur F. Beaugeard

For the first time in over a decade, an articulated Neanderthal skeleton, as in one with the bones in the proper positions, has been found in Shanidar Cave, Iraq. 

Earlier excavations at the Shanidar site in the 1950s and ‘60s revealed 10 Neanderthal skeletons clustered with clumps of pollen. This has been cited as evidence that Neanderthals buried their dead with flowers, possibly signifying ritualistic burials. These finds were shocking at the time because Neanderthals were generally seen as brutish, savage simpletons. These views were contradicted by theories of ritualistic burials which signify cultural sophistication and a certain measure of intelligence. 

Professor Graeme Barker of Cambridge’s McDonald Institute of Archaeology was beckoned by the Kurdish Regional Government to resume digging at the site in 2011, however, the actual digging didn’t start until 2014 and had to be abruptly terminated after a mere 2 days when ISIS expanded into their territory. Iraq was in a state of Civil War from 2014 to 2017. Barker says that they “didn’t expect to find any Neanderthal bones” and that they were just trying to date the surrounding sediments to find out how old the bones found in the ‘50s and ‘60s were. 

After excavations eventually resumed a few years later, the Archaeologists found an over 70,000 year-old-skeleton, with its worn teeth hinting that it may have belonged to a middle to older-aged adult. The sex is unknown. A rock found near the head of the skeleton, dubbed Shanidar Z, is thought to be a Neanderthalic marker used for the dead, further supporting the theory of Neanderthals having ritualistic burials. Unfortunately, many skeletons previously uncovered from this site are thought to have been lost during the 2003 America-led invasion of Iraq. 

As further layers of silt are removed, the skeleton is being analysed and scanned for a digital reconstruction at Cambridge University on loan. It will be returned to Iraq shortly.

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